Israel closes its borders, including for citizens and immigrants, in effort to curb COVID-19

El Al Israel Airlines departure counter is pictured empty after it cancelled flights to Italy at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, on February 27, 2020. – Israel has recorded three confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, including two from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and an Israeli who had been in northern Italy. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Philissa Cramer

(JTA) — Even as Israel has emerged as the world’s fastest-vaccinating country, its pace of new COVID-19 cases has set records as well.

Now, in a desperate effort to bring the outbreak under control, the country is taking the unprecedented step of completely locking down its borders.

Ben Gurion Airport has been closed to virtually all traffic in both directions. Since March, citizens have been able to travel freely as long as they follow quarantine rules upon entry, but now even they cannot enter or leave the country. (Non-citizens have largely been excluded, though a patchwork of exemptions has allowed some in.)

Even new immigrants, who have continued to arrive during the pandemic despite limits on non-citizen entry, will have to wait until the shutdown ends to travel to the country.

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The airport will remain closed for one week, the government announced Sunday. Exactly what impact the travel ban will have on infections is unclear because there are so many cases in Israel already. But new visa-free travel as a consequence of normalization with several Arab nations has proven to be a vector for disease, with one traveler reportedly infecting 180 Israelis on his return from the United Arab Emirates. The shutdown allows a halt on that travel without rolling back the terms of those deals.